Page last updated at 23:48 GMT, Monday, 14 September 2009 00:48 UK

Strike threat over Brown 'cuts'

By Iain Watson
Political correspondent, BBC News

Gordon Brown
Gordon Brown will address trade unionists over the economy

Liverpool has experienced the cycle of recession then renaissance many times in the century since the TUC last visited Merseyside.

But when Prime Minister Gordon Brown addresses trade unionists on Tuesday, he will say his government's economic strategy has prevented a grim recession metamorphosing into that thankfully rarer but fiercer beast, depression.

He won't expect gratitude. But he is looking for an act of political solidarity.

He wants the industrial wing of the Labour movement to echo the political wing's message - that a Conservative government would choke off public spending in the short term and with it, a nascent economic recovery.

On this point, the unions are likely to oblige.

But if he receives a relatively polite, though probably muted, welcome there will be a feeling that any unpleasantness has merely been postponed.

The prime minister will say that once the economy improves, "tough choices" will lie ahead to get the debt down.

Whether he speaks explicitly of spending cuts, or slower growth, or economies or priorities, the unions will be wary.

Tory lead

True, it may be a Conservative government which actually has to implement any cuts.

They are, after all, ahead in the opinion polls and a recent survey commissioned by the Unison trade union suggested that the main party of opposition had a narrow lead over Labour amongst public sector workers - the very people whose jobs the TUC have argued this week should be protected.

The possibility of a change of government has entirely convinced the Labour movement to stick with the red devil it knows.

But if Labour was to hang on to power - and some sources suggest the gap between the main parties is smaller in key marginal seats than in the national polls - the party has said it would halve Britain's massive debt burden in a four-year period.

And it's here that it's difficult to discern a meeting of minds between trade unions and government.

Downing Street trailed well in advance that the prime minister would make a plea in his speech to TUC delegates not to talk of strikes - the spectre of industrial action, Mr Brown believes, would scare off investment and damage the prospects of recovery.

But the unions have voted in terms to take "industrial action" if necessary to protect public services - and public sector jobs.

So not only have the unions rejected the prime minister's overtures, they have got their retaliation in first and snubbed him before he even opens his mouth.

The possibility of a change of government has entirely convinced the Labour movement to stick with the red devil they know.

Strike action

It had been assumed that the more moderate unions would have fought shy of spelling out, in terms, that strike action is a possibility for fear of reminding people of the winter of discontent which preceded Labour's last ejection from power in 1979.

But in the end they accepted the arguments of more radical unions - including those such as the civil service body, the PCS which isn't affiliated to Labour - that the weapon of strike action in the armoury to protect jobs shouldn't be ruled out.

The TUC's unusually diplomatic general secretary, Brendan Barber, says the vote reflects in part fears amongst trade unionists over economic uncertainty, and a feeling that only a fall in unemployment will convince his members that recovery is genuinely in the way and the threat to jobs is receding.

So while Mr Brown will be lauded for his "fiscal stimulus" - his strategy to spend his way out of recession - any talk of subsequent cuts will be denounced not in conference debates, but very possibly through industrial disputes.

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